The coun­try’s vi­cious pol­i­tics do a dis­ser­vice to its peo­ple

The Guardian - - OPINION -

Bangladesh’s im­pres­sive run in the Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy, though ter­mi­nated by a thrash­ing from In­dia in the semi-fi­nal last week, high­lighted the cricket team’s strik­ing progress and won de­served ap­plause. This rel­a­tively young na­tion – which only won in­de­pen­dence from Pak­istan in 1971 – usu­ally gets lit­tle credit for its tri­umphs against the odds. Those ob­sta­cles have been nu­mer­ous, in­clud­ing the legacy of colo­nial­ism and the war of in­de­pen­dence, and the chal­lenges of safe­guard­ing the world’s eighth-largest pop­u­la­tion when it is crammed into a delta: at least 150 peo­ple are thought to have died in floods and land­slides last week. Yet the coun­try has slashed cy­clone deaths through bet­ter shel­ters and warn­ing sys­tems, and made im­pres­sive strides on health, lit­er­acy and poverty al­le­vi­a­tion.

Its great­est en­emy has ar­guably been the folly of its own politi­cians who re­main locked in a vi­cious and ster­ile feud which has claimed too many lives and squan­dered op­por­tu­ni­ties to strengthen the coun­try. Since 1991, lead­er­ship has swung be­tween the Awami League and the Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist party, each led by dy­nas­tic lead­ers, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. The last elec­tions, in 2014, were scarred by wide­spread vi­o­lence and have been fol­lowed by fur­ther at­tacks on the op­po­si­tion. Few be­lieve that pol­i­tics have not played a part in the le­gal cases against Ms Zia and her son and heir ap­par­ent, Tarique Rah­man. Ear­lier this month the for­mer prime min­is­ter Moudud Ahmed and his wife, the poet Hasna Jasimud­din Moudud, were evicted from their home af­ter it was seized by court order. Mr Ahmed, 77, is not only a BNP party el­der – but also a lawyer who de­fended Sheikh Mu­jibur Rah­man, Sheikh Hasina’s fa­ther and the coun­try’s found­ing leader, when what was then West Pak­istan charged him with sedi­tion pre-in­de­pen­dence. It says much about how Bangladesh’s lead­ers have wasted its orig­i­nal hopes as they ob­sess over di­vi­sions and ig­nore com­mon in­ter­ests.

The crack­down is felt far be­yond po­lit­i­cal cir­cles: the gov­ern­ment has tar­geted broader dis­sent among writers, schol­ars and ac­tivists too. Four years af­ter the Rana Plaza col­lapse killed more than 1,100 gar­ment work­ers, in­ter­na­tional cloth­ing brands are com­plain­ing about the tar­get­ing of unions. Mean­while, vi­o­lent Is­lamist ex­trem­ism has spread amid the at­mos­phere of an­i­mos­ity and sus­pi­cion, and the over­stretch of law en­force­ment. The killing of 20 hostages by mil­i­tants at a cafe in Dhaka last year fi­nally prompted the gov­ern­ment to con­front the prob­lem, af­ter shame­fully fail­ing to re­spond to the mur­ders of lib­eral blog­gers, schol­ars and mi­nori­ties. Yet, 18 months out from elec­tions, the Awami League ap­pears to be try­ing to ap­pease con­ser­va­tive forces as it tries to tap a ris­ing, re­li­gious lower mid­dle class for votes, fend­ing off an op­po­si­tion that looks like a more nat­u­ral home for them.

Both par­ties need to re-en­gage with democ­racy and civil rights, re­nounce the use of force and pan­der­ing to in­tol­er­ance, and fo­cus on the needs of their peo­ple. Tens of mil­lions still live in poverty. Cli­mate change is an im­me­di­ate and press­ing threat. Ex­port growth and re­mit­tances are fall­ing; ex­ces­sive re­liance on the gar­ment sec­tor leaves the coun­try vul­ner­a­ble to ex­ter­nal eco­nomic shocks. Bangladesh’s peo­ple have worked hard for ev­ery­thing they have gained. They de­serve much bet­ter from their lead­ers.

It should be pos­si­ble to stand as a joint can­di­date, Green and Labour, or Women’s Equal­ity party and Labour

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